Dissecting phone call behind Trump impeachment push

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-49831516

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Details of a controversial phone call at the centre of the push by Democrats to consider impeaching President Donald Trump have been released. What have we learnt?

A rough transcript of the conversation between the US president and the Ukrainian president in July has just been made public.

It has been seized on by his critics as evidence that Mr Trump sought foreign help to dig dirt on his potential 2020 rival, Joe Biden. But Republicans say it reveals nothing untoward.

Here are the key passages broken down.

1. The three Biden mentions

The media reported that Donald Trump asked Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate Joe Biden and his son Hunter in their July phone conversation.

Then Mr Trump confirmed it – more or less.

Now here it is, in black and white – complete with presidential editorialising about how Mr Biden’s actions “sound horrible”. “There’s a lot of talk” is also a classic Trump verbal construction when he wants to imply nefarious deeds but avoid making a direct accusation.

(Mr Biden did in fact brag about getting the Ukrainian chief prosecutor fired, but no evidence has come to light that he ever tied it to the investigation, let alone any prosecution, of the Ukrainian oil company that employed his son.)

Mr Trump refers the Ukrainian president to US Attorney General Bill Barr – although the US Justice Department has said that Mr Barr was never brought into the loop.

The president even considering such a request is highly irregular, however, given that it might indicate Mr Trump was trying to encourage his Justice Department to initiate a criminal investigation into Mr Biden or his son.

2. No quid pro quo (but…)

To fully understand the implications of Mr Trump’s Biden request, scroll back in the transcript a few paragraphs to this exchange.

After some diplomatic niceties, Mr Zelensky thanks Mr Trump for his “great support in the area of defence”. This is a loaded comment, because just a week or so before this phone conversation, the US put a hold on the $250m in military aid Congress had authorised for Ukraine – reportedly at the behest of Mr Trump and without any clear explanation offered.

Mr Zelensky goes on to talk about the Javelins (US-made anti-tank missile) Ukraine plans to buy, presumably with the suspended funds.

As soon as Mr Zelensky finishes, Mr Trump counters with a “favour” he would like Ukraine to do. Initially he mentions Crowdstrike and a “server” Ukraine may have – mostly likely a reference to the cyber-security firm the Democratic National Committee hired to investigate the Russian hacking of the party’s communications and files that proved so damaging to Hillary Clinton and the Democrats in 2016.

(Mr Trump – and some conspiracy-minded conservatives – have expressed doubts about whether Russia was actually behind the act.)

After Mr Zelensky replied about how much he wanted to have Mr Trump’s trust and confidence and “personal relations”, the US president brought up the Bidens.

Prior to this transcript’s release there was considerable speculation about whether there would be an explicit “quid-pro-quo”, where Mr Trump conditioned the release of US military aid on Ukraine’s willingness to investigate one of the president’s top political rivals.

There’s no direct presidential request here, but Democrats calling for Mr Trump’s impeachment could point to this passage and say it’s not too difficult to connect the dots.

3. European countries need to cough up

Mr Trump’s first explanation for why he suspended hundreds of millions of dollars in military aid to Ukraine was because he was concerned about the former Soviet nation’s track record of corruption. By Tuesday, however, the president was citing a different reason – that he believed the US was contributing too much to Ukraine and wanted to pressure European nations to do more.

The White House and Republicans in Congress will point to this passage, early in the phone call, as evidence to support this claim.

Mr Trump certainly has a long history of highlighting and criticising what he sees as the comparatively large burden the US carries in terms of military and economic aid compared to its allies, so his explanation is not implausible.

The question, however, is whether in this case it is more plausible than another explanation – that Mr Trump was using this phone call not to pursue a legitimate foreign policy goal, but to advance a personal political one.

It’s a point Democrats and Republicans are sure to argue over – and one for which the American people will ultimately be the judge.

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